Pakistan - Part 2
14/5 The Lowari Pass: this should be one of the highlights here. Unfortunately, this too is a single construction site and in most places little more that a jeep track. It spectacularly crosses several glaciers. It is in one of these that I come to grief. The surface is extremely rough. Because of two oncoming trucks I need to pull over, which the bike does all by itself (!). The trucks having passed I take off, but the bike just lurches on the rocks and I fall heavily onto the right side, the pannier pinning down my right foot with its edge. The pain is intense and my boot is stuck. Some people come rushing to help and by the time I pick myself up the bike is upright again. The pain is less now and I can move my toes, so I don't think I broke anything. One of the people races ahead and flags me down. I stop, thinking he wants to warn me of another danger, but no, he demands 40 Rs. for his services. A couple of glaciers later, in a tricky section, the engine just looses power when I need it most, and the bike goes down again. I don't get hurt this time, only the brake lever is bent. Down the other side seems easier, until I get to a rather large ford. 2/3 of the way through the bike had enough and will not accept any throttle, it will only idle. I sit in the water. Grrrr. After 5 mins of playing with the throttle it comes back to normal. Next ford the same performance. When I get to the motel in the afternoon I'm completely stuffed and have a sore foot. We were all meant to go the Kalasha valley tomorrow. It will be the last day of the annual Kalasha festival, but with my foot being so sore I don't think I can go.
15/5 My foot is a lot better and so I join the crowd for the Kalasha valley. The Kiwis' guide says that there are some other bikers staying here and heading the same way, but we can't find them. The track up the valley is narrow, rough and steep, with water flowing down parts of it. I leave the Kiwis to check into their expensive joint and head up to the end of the next village. The track is even rougher up here and oncoming jeeps don't make it any easier. My foot is so good now I even walk back down to the festival. The women's costumes are very colourful, but there is litle action. Apparently, in this valley the last and main day of the festival will be tomorow. I find it more interesting to watch all the differnt people here. The Kiwis tell me there is a German couple on a BMW staying at the PTDC Hotel. I get a lift back by them to my hotel and ride down to find them, but no luck, they have vanished. On the way back up I crash heavily on some slippery stones, but only a bruise. I'm starting to wonder whether I'm going to survive this trip... There is thunder and a little rain in the evening. I spend it indoors with a group of young people, with some of whom I have interesting discussions about religion.
16/5 I decide to give the rest of the festival a miss and leave the primitive hotel. Somehow I'm feeling depressed here. I don't know why, the place is pretty and the people are friendly. On the way out I meet the Kiwis again, they are also leaving. The road is good and sealed until Buni, from here on it is a very rough track. The scenery is getting ever more spectacular. In one place I have to cross a patch of big loose stones and I drop the bike again. Progress is slow, but I make it to Mastuj. The young owner of the guest house bends over backwards to please me. Across the road the place advertises net access, but I can't find anybody there and the power is off anyway. A dusty storm blows up. Even high up in the mountains I can see dust being blown off the mountainside. Then there is thunder and lightning and the heavens open up. I wonder whether this will make the Shandur Pass impassable.
17/5 Clear sky, so there is nothing to keep me here any longer. The Shandur Pass is a lot easier than the Lowari, I think. The views are definitely more spectacular here. Over the top and there is a very beautiful lake. I stop to admire it and contamplate camping here. However, there are threatening clouds appearing again and the wind picks up and it's quite cold here at 3700 m altitude, so I decide against it. A short while later I find my path blocked by a huge mass of ice. They didn't bother clearing that away, as there is a viable detour for jeeps, involving a muddy stretch of deep looking water and the crossing of a swamp. I think I can handle the swamp, following the tracks that are partially dried up, but I don't like the look of that watery section of track, so I decide to cut across the stony swamp. I'm actually doing surprisingly well until, about 10 m from the end, both wheels go into watery holes and I'm firmly stuck. At the same time an almighty migraine attack strikes, making for utter misery. Despite this I manage to offload all luggage, bar the boxes, drag the bike around and get it out onto drier ground. Here I collapse in pain for about 1/2h. I reload everything and get myself down to Phander and back onto tar seal and into a hotel. The power goes off and I watch the locals turn it back on: there is a high voltage transformer and a man reconnects the circuit breakers with a wooden pole, drawing a nice big arc. I notice that the insulators are sitting unprotected in the open. When I check in I'm told there is hot water with 'electric'. There is a homemade immersion heater. Needless to say it doesn't have a plug, the wires are just stuck into the power point.
18/5 It is cold in the morning and I have to wear my fleece pullover for the first time in I can't remember how long. The valleys here are wonderfull and I cruise down slowly on a good tar road. Bliss. Looking back I can see dark clouds obscuring the mountain tops and they catch up with me. For this reason I refrain from exploring a couple of side valleys and cruise on to Gilgit. The guesthouse has a nice garden and there are other travellers. I learn that two days after I left Peshawar a bomb destroyed an Afghani hotel/restaurant, killing 25. Sounds like it was nowhere near where I was staying. The clouds finally catch up with me, a terrible dust storm blows up, then it rains for a while. I catch up with email, which I haven't been able to do for a while.
19/5 I get some work done on the bike.
20/5 In an internet cafe I meet the Kiwis again. As I expected, they got cought in the rain on the Shandur Pass. Tomorrow they head up to Hunza into the freezing cold. They don't have a choice, as they have to cross the China border on a certain date. Munching on some sweets a corner of a tooth breaks off. A trip to the dentist is required, I'm afraid.
21/5 Three Aussie bikers arrive from the Khunjerab Pass: Trish on a Kawa Sherpa 250, Bill on a R80 G/S and Damien with a KLR650. He is heading for Iran and Spain, while the other two want to cross China. I get my tooth repaired, fairly quickly and efficiently and with modern two-component cement. At 1000 Rs (about 12 Euro) the cheapest trip to the dentist I've had in my life. Let's hope it lasts. The weather is slowly getting better, but also colder. Islamabad is still at around 40C.
22/5 I attempt to visit a Buddha carved into a rockface and some Buddhist monastery ruins, but the instructions I have from the LP guide are too imprecise to find it and the locals can't tell me, so it turns into a ride up a valley instead. I must have ridden right past it.
24/5 Still stuck here waiting for the weather to improve. I manage a short walk along a derelict water channel with some good views of Gilgit, but the mountains are hidden behind clouds.
25/5 A short excursion up the Naltar valley. It's very steep and rough, but at the top of the barren gorge I think I have landed in Switzerland. Until I get to the first houses, that is.
26/5 It's finally brightened up a bit and I make my way to Baltit/Karimabad. It's nice and warm and the going is slow, because the scenery is awesome and I stop for lots of photos. As I pass Aliabad I thnk I can recognise the hotel Chris and I stayed in the last time. Why I would have stopped in this uninteresting bazar, I don't know. I stop in Karimabad and meet some travellers from Gilgit again. In the afternoon we sit on the lawn in front of the hotel and watch Rakaposhi finally emerge from the clouds. It would be bliss if it wasn't for the thousands of flies pestering us.
27/5 With 4 others we attempt the climb up Ultar Gorge. It soon turns into a scramble up the river bed. We meet Mr Hallo, a guy whose English is limited to the words "Hallo" and "cigarette". He very obviously wants to be our guide and when I say "Khoda Hafiz" (goodbye) he demands money. He's out of luck. He then follows us, calling "Hallo" and pointing here or there. I decide that my sore foot had enough and turn back, leaving the others to deal with him. It turns out that there was a rock fall further up and the valley is blocked, so it was just as well I didn't go any further. Even Mr Hallo couldn't find a way around the rock fall, but that didn't stop him from demanding money again. As I wander around the village I meet many of the locals. It's a relief to finally see some women at large again. They actually do talk to me. Most don't even cover their hair. They are Ismailis, a Shia sect that takes Islam much more easy than the mainstream.
28/5 Before leaving I indulge myself in a cafe: cappucino, pancakes and fudge. There are two foreign vans parked, but I can't find the owners. Heading further up the valley the scenery is great again. Just before Passu I head for what looks like a wall of mountains, about 6000m high with snow on top. After checking into a hotel I walk back into the village. Who should be walking towards me but my companions from Baltit. We share a good dinner together.
29/5 It's cloudy again around the mountain tops, so I decide to stay another day before heading up the pass. With a Chinese couple I walk to Passu Lake, but there is a freezing wind there, so I turn back. The others go a little further and freeze a little more. I meet two young Swiss couples travelling in two old vans, the same I had seen in Baltit. They are heading to China and Tadjikistan. In the evening I find Arantza and Joseba parked only metres from my hotel. In the hotel next door there is a locally famous singer and a film crew filming his performance. We foreigners are used as clapping background. When the filming is finished the music continues, the highlight being a Malaysian tourist with the guitar.
30/5 Still a lot of cloud, but I bite the bullet and head for the pass. There are only 14 days left on my visa. After Sost the road seriously deteriorates, but there are numerous checkpoints where everybody has to enter their details into the magic book. In Dih there are two, 200m apart. Bureauprats. On my previous trip I rode right to the Chinese checkpoint and had tea with the guards. No more: a new Pak checkpoint prevents people from driving to the very top of the pass. Bribing the head guard with some dried apricots doesn't work, either, but I have tea with the Paki guards and after half an hour Arantza & Joseba also arrive at the top. We walk the last 500m and I find that on the Chinese side everything has been modernised and there is now a smooth two-lane highway down to Tashkurgan. The Swiss people arrive and cross into China. After about an hour at the top I notice signs of altitude sickness (could be migraine) and I quickly make my way down again. The symptoms disappear at about 3800m alitude. The bike, however, runs even at the top without a hitch. Back in Sost it is time to farewell my Basque friends, who will leave their van in Sost and spend a month in China. We will meet again in Ladakh, Insh'Allah.
I quote from the packet: "We sat in the snow and looked at the country far below us... we nibbled Kendal Mint Cake". Hi Stefan! Actually, at only 4700m most of the country was high above us!